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Atonement | Study Guide

Ian McEwan

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Atonement | Part 4, London, 1999 | Summary

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Summary

Briony takes a cab to the Imperial War Museum to put her research for Atonement in order. She has just gotten the diagnosis of vascular dementia from her doctor. She thinks of Lord and Lady Marshall and the various foundations doing good in the world they fund. Lola is still agile, and Briony fears she will outlive her, making it impossible for Briony to publish her novel in her lifetime (because she fears Lola would accuse her of libel).

Briony prepares for her 77th birthday party, thrown for her at the old house, now a hotel. She is given Aunt Venus's old room, the one Paul Marshall occupied long ago. Her family celebrates her birthday by performing her old play, The Trials of Arabella.

Briony admits she fabricated the part about her meeting Cecilia and Robbie still alive. She wanted the lovers to have a better end. She notes, "if she had the power to conjure them at [her] birthday celebration," she would. And then she goes to sleep.

Analysis

In this last chapter, McEwan provides the twist that turns the novel into a tragedy: Atonement is a work by "Briony," and Cecilia and Robbie actually both died in the war. Briony muses that only those interested in "the bleakest realism" would want to believe the lovers never lived to meet again or fulfill their love. This seems to be a comment on many readers' general expectation of happy endings for stories. Such expectations bring unhappiness because all endings cannot be happy.

The reader learns that Briony got her details about Robbie's time on the French front from interviews with Nettle. Also, Robbie and Cecilia's love letters are now housed in the Imperial War Museum in London. Briony condensed her time in three hospitals to one, but admits this is "the least of [her] offences against veracity." She comments on her fact checker's corrections, saying if she "really cared so much about facts, [she] should have written a different kind of book."

Briony's love of order and a "tidy finish" is evident in the conclusion: she makes sure "everything is in the right box file." Her forthcoming slow descent into mental chaos brought on by vascular dementia seems like poetic justice.

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